Banish the spiders

January 12, 2011 | 26 comments

For my first post for our year with Francis de Sales, I was drawn to a section at the beginning of Introduction to the Devout Life. Addressing the reader as Philothea, which refers to “a soul in love with God, ” he discusses venial, i.e. “small” sins.

We don’t need to freak out about relatively minor sins; if you snicker at an inappropriate joke on television, it’s not the end of the world. However. Francis points out that there is a danger in getting attached to these small sins. If we adopt an attitude of “Aw, that’s not a big deal — in fact, it’s kina fun!” and indulge this kind of behavior repeatedly, the results can be dire. He points out that all sin hurts God, and therefore affection we have for venial sin is therefore an affection for hurting God. Which is not a good thing. He writes:

Venial sins that enter into a devout soul but do not stay there long do it no great damage, but if those same sins remain in the soul because of some affection it has for them, they undoubtedly cause it to lose “the sweetness of its ointment, ” that is, holy devotion.

He goes on to use a great analogy. Borrowing from the 16th-century folk wisdom (which may not be scientifically accurate) about the effects of spiders on honey, he says:

Spiders do not kill bees but spoil and corrupt their honey and tangle the honeycombs with their webs so that the bees cannot do their work. This must be understood of times when the spiders stay among them. In like manner, venial sins do not kill the soul but spoil its devotion and so entangle its powers in bad habits. […]

Philothea, it is not a matter of any great moment to tell a little lie or to fall into some slight irregularity in words, actions, looks, dress, jokes, games, or dances, provided that as soon as these spiritual spiders have entered our conscience we chase them away and banish them, as flies do real spiders. If we let them remain in our hearts, if we permit our desires to retain and multiply them, we shall soon find our honey ruined and the hive that is our conscience corrupted and ruined.

Here’s what I thought was interesting about this: When I’m struggling with a serious sin, I tend to focus on it and nothing else. My other, smaller, sins seem unimportant in comparison, so I basically ignore them. But a lightbulb that went off for me after reading this excerpt. I realized that I’d instituted a vicious cycle that was dragging me down spiritually: by ignoring the small sins in the name of focusing on the bigger ones, I was letting spiders into my honeycomb, so to speak. Though they weren’t bad enough to kill my soul, they were making a huge mess of it, just as I was trying to get spiritually healthy. They were fueling the negative desires that were behind the bigger sins.

As with all of Francis’ advice, it’s aimed at loving God with all your heart. As he pointed out in the first excerpt, to snicker at any sin is to snicker at an insult to God. So when I catch myself giving myself a pass — or even smiling in tacit approval — at some “little” sin, I often think of Francis’ words. If I want to conquer big sins, or even just live the full, rich life that God designed me to live, I’m not going to be able to do it until I banish the “spiders” of my soul.


  1. Trish

    “From little things..big things grow!”
    This was made into a jingle for a tv commercial – it kept running as background music in my mind while reading your post.
    I hate spiders. Great analogy for venial sins.
    St Francis will help me squish a few more now.
    bless you..Trish

  2. priest's wife

    I just picked up Intro after not having read it for 15 years. My father-in-law is a beekeeper (it’s his hobby, but he has over 100 hives) so I love the bee references in the book- most references are scientifically accurate

  3. Ladyofthelakes

    What great imagery! I immediately thought of last summer when we temporarily moved into my in-laws summer house. There was a lot of major cleaning and reorganizing to be done but there were also a lot of cobwebs and spiders that had taken up residence. I HATE spiders. My husband thought I was crazy to be so obsessed with eradicating every last spider in the midst of all the moving around, cleaning, and organizing. Even though many of them were tiny and probably harmless I just couldn’t feel at peace until they were gone. I think I should make another new year’s resolution to go after all the small ‘harmless’ spiders in my soul with the same kind of determination. Thanks for another great post!

  4. Tracy C.

    I just love St. Francis deSales!

  5. Theresa in Alberta

    I am going to pull this book off of the shelf, dust it off and give it another read!! thankyou for the reminder of this timeless wisdom 🙂

  6. Elizabeth

    He was very wise to use the spider metaphor because now I’ll get the creepy crawlies when I’m about to laugh at a rude joke.

  7. TomaBlizanac

    So we shouldn’t just focus on giant deadly scorpions, but also take care not to forget about the spiders. OK.

  8. Lisa @ Cheerfully Chaotic

    The best Confessor I ever had (who incidentally helped me make my best confessions) gave me a GREAT image for sin, especially sin that involved my marriage in any way. He compared my marriage to a house and every small sin I committed against my husband/marriage to dust and filth and bugs that were hidden and swept up under the house. For a very long time, the outside of the house looks solid and even the inside gives the illusion of being strong and intact. However, over time, the filthiness of sin begins to rot the home from the inside out and has the power to destroy it if it’s not attended to, mended, and then reinforced to make it stronger than before.

  9. suzyqtpie

    I never thought of those “small” sins that way, Great post!

  10. Kelly

    I read this book till it fell apart! The imagery was amazing, and when he would describe certain scenes and circumstances, I noticed that it was all still relevant, and kept being reminded that “there is nothing new under the sun.” In reading the saints, I often feel that time is really deceptive, and that humans are not so “advanced” as we may think. In fact, maybe less so, like Father Corapi often says-we are educated into imbecility.
    I need to read it again.
    My saint was our Lady of Guadalupe. It reminded me not to let up on my pro life work. 🙂

  11. Margo

    How true this is! Any sin offends the Lord, even the venial sins. Though venial sins have been around since the beginning of sin, I think that in our present culture where there are way too many blurred lines and gray areas these “little” sins are what initially hook us and eventually drag us into deeper, more serious sins. Jennifer, I am so glad you posted this and I hope everyone sees the part where you wrote: “We don’t need to freak out about relatively minor sins; if you snicker at an inappropriate joke on television, it’s not the end of the world.” It may not be the end of the world, but it certainly is the beginning of falling out of grace.

    (By the way, I HATE spiders. I hope those spiders in that photo are fake!)

  12. Joy

    This is really thought-provoking. My husband and I went to see a certain movie that was *very* popular two summers ago. We should have known better from its title, but so many Christian friends spoke highly of it that we walked in with high expectations. We walked out when one of the main characters in the movie who is introduced early in the movie as being a sexual predator makes it look like a baby is masturbating. I’ve walked out of movies before, but this was the first I walked out of and demanded a refund. We were so disgusted by the popularity of the movie and wondered how so many people raved about it. But reading this post makes me realize how easy it is to “start letting the spiders” in. I’ve certainly laughed at other, perhaps-less-inappropriate jokes in movies. The imagery is great. Yeah, it might be a “little” spider, but it still gives me the heebie-jeebies!

  13. Craig

    Amen. It’s the snowball thing. Sin loves company. One “venial” invites others, and a bunch of inconsiderate and sloppy “venials” make messes, and destroy foundations. It’s just best to keep out as many pests as possible isn’t it?

    And I say banish the spiders anyway – they must have been less mean and bloodthirsty before the Fall – but after? No, I say banish the spiders regardless of the bees.

    Thank you much for this Jennifer – and to you and yours I really do pray blessings today.

  14. Marco

    Another well written article! I can totally commiserate with your struggle against venial sin. I also fall in this camp, I am usually so hyper focused on serious sins that I seldom notice the small spiders creeping in the corners of my soul. Take for example my prayer life. I usually make it a priority to pray every single day, but on the days that I willfully choose not to pray, (usually because I am very tired or busy) I usually rationalize that forgetting to pray is OK once in a while since I am a good Catholic already. What I don’t realize is that this simple rationalization is leading me towards the slippery slope of complacency. Once my soul becomes complacent then an unconscious gulf is being created ultimately separating me from God, the author of all holiness. It is my prayer that you catch those spiders in your spiritual life. Thanks for the great article, I look forward to reading your other posts about St. France de Sales.

  15. Thag Jones

    To take Joy’s comment a little further, there’s an cultural insidiousness to it as well. If you look at what’s popular now and try to place in the culture even as little as 50 years ago, it would have been extremely shocking to all but the most depraved people. Now, hardly anyone bats an eye, these things are given awards, and if you say anything “negative” about it you’re a prude or a stick-in-the-mud.

    We may laugh now at the idea of Elvis shaking his hips being offensive, but look how far down that road we’ve gone in such a short time – where even Christians will accept and praise juvenile and witless depravity.

    And this is where seemingly small and innocuous things can lead, on both a personal and a cultural level.

  16. Tina

    I have such a hard time with the concept of “greater” and “lesser” sins, as if there was some difference. Sure, we as human beings see something different in a “little white lie” and murder, but sin is sin is sin in God’s eyes–the small and the great (in our eyes) are all enough to keep us from His presence–all require the saving grace of Jesus.

    • Jenny C.

      Check out 1 John 5:16 and 17 on the subject of mortal vs. non-mortal sin. The Bible was written and declared valid by the Catholic Church and is never contradicted by the Catholic Church. Any time you think you see a contradiction between the Bible and the Church, dig deeper and research it.

  17. Maria E.

    Hey Jennifer!
    I’ve been reading your blog for years but I never commented. I just wanted to let you know that your blog ROCKS!!!! 🙂 I read it all the time. Your posts have given me a lot of inspiration to keep my spiritual life in line. Thank you! Keep posting!

  18. LP

    I find it’s like one big “current” – when I find myself most spiritually alive, it’s because I have let the desire to love God with my whole heart, mind, soul & strength consume me and direct my will (which attaches us to good or evil). Then, I want to fix the little things (though the corrections are usually minor ones, or little “notes to self” as reminders, like “oh, I didn’t mean that,” or “better to think about it this way,” etc, and I am happy to make them) as well as the big things. I don’t always know what seems to “turn the tides” so to speak, though, because I don’t always have this attitude toward my spiritual life (or Life, period). Because our vocations to love and serve the Lord are lived out DAILY, I have been trying to remember the scripture about His Mercies renewing each morning/day, and remember how great a gift He gives us first – how great His Love is – which makes me more eager to respond with good will and generosity, as something that characterizes my disposition and all I do.

    I also read a quote in Love & Responsibility recently about societal sloth as well as resentment – and realized just how much resentment is present in the current cultural attitudes – as well as spiritual sloth (which he basically describes as sorrow before the realization of what pursuing the good entails, because one is not willing to make the effort). This was another good energizing motivator for me – because though I can easily feel tired/lazy, I know how good the Good can be! So I want to make the effort. And as far as attaining the Good, at the end of the day, the little things are just as much a part of the big picture (as any artist or musician will attest to!) as the big ones.

    Thanks for the encouragement to keep at it!

  19. English Sarah

    This is completely unrelated to your post but… HAPPY BIRTHDAY!
    Glad to see those spiders are fake 🙂

  20. whimsy

    Speaking of honey, you may really appreciate The Light Princess by George Macdonald, via

    Perhaps the best thing for the princess would have been to fall in love. . . she did not even know that there was such a beehive of honey and stings to be fallen into.

    Oh! Isn’t that so beautiful. I instantly understood how falling in love is such exquisite preparation for parenthood.

  21. Christine

    I LOVED this post! It made me think of my journey on becoming Catholic… I guess I worked it the other way around – I stopped the little sins first & worked my way up to the bigger ones (does this make any sense?)

    The more I “became” Catholic, the more I felt guilty about the little sins (or acknowledged what they were). My priest once said, “Christine, you’re on the right path – a good Catholic should feel guilty about those “little things””

    Although joining the Catholic faith as an adult, I came to it like a child and would often have to remind myself, “If I could see Jesus standing next to me right now, would I do (or say) this?” That was my guideline & still is. Unfortunately there are times when I must think he’s looking the other way! 🙂

    God Bless you Jennifer!

  22. Ruth Ann

    I look forward to your series of essays about St. Francis de Sales. I appreciate the caution he gives concerning venial sin. It impedes our growth in virtue and our goal of purity of heart.

    It is a good thing to be sensitive to all sin and not to make light of any sin, even those that do not destroy our relationship with God. Sometimes I forget this. Thank you for this reminder.

  23. Catherine Post

    This makes me remember fondly the nuns I had in Catholic school. Over the course of many childhood years, I recall them telling us, essentially, this: “If you want to know what will happen to you, take a look into your conscience. Maybe there is something there that you do not think is ‘big’; so you give yourself a pass. You ignore it. What you don’t realize is, you have made a choice in ignoring it; you have made a small turn toward darkness. Next time will be easier to turn in that same direction some more. So never think of these small matters as “no big deal”. They aren’t today, it’s true. But you watch, out in the world, the BIG problems people get themselves into. How did they get there? By ignoring these little sins…” I still love those nuns. 😉

  24. elizabethe

    It’s like the broken windows theory of sin.

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